The government of Azerbaijan is exploiting the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic to further tighten the screws on civil society inside its borders.
About the Author: Zhala Bayramova, Founder of the Azerbaijan Under Legal Criticism platform, together with Crude Accountability
Image Credit: Adobe Stock, Licensed
According to the operational headquarters of Azerbaijan’s Cabinet of Ministers, the country’s first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed at the end of February 2020. As of May 5th, officials reported 1,305 positive cases of COVID-19 in Azerbaijan, including 26 fatalities. 148 people are sick with COVID-19 in specialized hospitals.
However, because of a lack of trust in the government, many Azerbaijanis suspect that information about some COVID-19 cases has been hushed or disguised as “unknown lung-related deaths.” 
As the number of COVID-19 cases was rising, experts accused the government of hiding information. Political activists and independent media shared unofficial coronavirus-related information. To counter that, the Parliament quickly adopted an amendment to the already restrictive Law on Information.
According to the amendment, the owner of any internet information resource is required to prevent the publication of false information online. This includes information that poses a threat to the life, health, and property of the population; public safety; or the work of life support facilities, financial, transport, communication, industrial, energy, and social infrastructure. The publication of information that might cause other situations that are dangerous to the public would also be prohibited. While presented as a response to the pandemic, this amendment to the Law on Information further clamps down on social media users – the platform for independent Azerbaijani voices.
Independent lawyers Khalid Baghirov, Alasgar Mammadli, and Khalid Aghaly noted that these changes are part of continuous policy to restrict freedom of expression. They accused the government of lacking a professional team to implement the law and failing to disclose information to society.
While the country is suffering from the pandemic, the government continues to engage in politically-motivated arrests. Political arrests during the pandemic have been mainly based on the administrative code, with a short duration of arrests for such reasons as, for example, a Facebook post about the pandemic or for allegedly violating the quarantine regime.
The members of opposition parties such as Popular Front, ReAL, Azerbaijan Democracy and Prosperities (ADR) Movement, Musavat, and independent political activists have been arrested for allegedly violating the quarantine or posting political or pandemic related posts on Facebook. The leader of the D18 Movement was unlawfully followed by police, and the movement’s office was unlawfully closed on 8 March.
On March 19th, a new law that permits arrest for violating an anti-epidemic regime, sanitary-hygienic, or quarantine regimes was added to the Criminal Code(139-1).
On March 20th, President Aliev gave a televised speech that contained “threats to the opposition” calling them “members of the 5th column, traitors, anti-Azerbaijani forces, enemies, traitors who receive money from foreign donors, provocateurs.” The president accused the opposition of using hate speech and calling for riots and mentioned that the country should be freed of them; isolating them is necessary. US Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich and representatives of the foreign media described this speech as a crackdown on the opposition.
After the adoption of the law, the President’s televised speech, and the start of Azerbaijan’s quarantine, a wave of political arrests took place, with dozens arrested. At the end of this blog post, we include a list of cases, which is not comprehensive, but it illustrates the severity of the situation.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were severe restrictions on political freedoms in Azerbaijan. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, Azerbaijani citizens have been confronted with additional problems including government ineffectiveness, a lack of government accountability, and disregard for the rule of law.
The crisis is further complicated by the absence of credible information and a lack of public oversight of governmental response to the pandemic. Restrictions on civil society organizations in Azerbaijan have eliminated civic oversight of governmental policies and activities.
Attempts by independent civil society to monitor social assistance during this time have been met with politically motivated attacks. For example, Ilkin Rustamzade, human rights activist and former prisoner of conscience, launched a petition asking the government to provide social security to persons affected by COVID-19. Since then, he and his family have experienced harassment by the police including a home break-in, being followed, and receiving insulting social media posts against his wife and insulting messages from unknown government officials.
The Facebook page of Gubad Ibadoghlu, a leading independent economist in Azerbaijan, was spammed by hundreds of insults. The head of Popular Front Ali Karimli, and his family members, claim that their Internet and phone connections were cut off and that his WhatsApp and Telegram account were hacked by the government.
Although more than 200 prisoners were freed on March 26th in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus in prisons,political prisoners were not included in this decision. 
Lack of advocacy and access to information puts citizens in a difficult position, especially during the pandemic. There is no alternative source to monitor and to follow the state policy, funds, and civic and political freedom during the COVID-19 period.
Azerbaijani authorities are taking advantage of the weakness of civil society and are increasing the clampdown on independent economic and political spheres. This increases the risks posed by the pandemic and prolongs the critical situation, leading to more suffering by ordinary Azerbaijani citizens.
Those arrested during the pandemic include:
- On March 21st, journalist Ilgar Atayev was one of the first to be called in after the new law was established. He was questioned about a Facebook post he made about coronavirus. He was charged with violating Article 388.1 of the code of administrative offenses – sharing prohibited information on the Internet.
- On March 21st, several members of the opposition Muslim Unity Movement were detained, including Samir Babayev, who was arrested for giving away free face masks.
- On March 22nd, member of opposition Popular Front Party Anar Malikov was sentenced to ten days of administrative detention for allegedly violating the rules of the quarantine. The charges failed to specify which rules exactly. 
- On March 23rd, opposition leader Tofig Yagublu was arrested on charges of hooliganism and is now being held for three months in pre-trial detention facing up to seven years in prison.
- On March 30th, ReAL party activist, Arastun Bakhshaliyev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest for not submitting to the police.
- On March 30th, Aqil Humbatov, member of the Popular Front Of Azerbaijan, was detained and then forcibly placed in a psychiatric clinic after he criticized the government and President Aliyev on Facebook for ignoring the rights of poor children, many of whom need medical treatment.
- On April 6th, Shakir Mammadov, member of the Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement (ADR), was arrested.
- On April 9th, Popular Front Party activist Ruslan Amirov was sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest for violating quarantine.
- On April 9th, video-blogger Natig Isbatov was arrested for 30 days for allegedly violating the lockdown for reporting on a protest calling for governmental financial support to the public during the pandemic. He was not allowed to call his lawyer or family.
- On April 10th, youth activist Nariman Abdulla was tortured and arrested. His phone and personal information were forcefully taken by the police in response to a comment he made: “We should go into the streets.”
- On April 12th, Hikmat Aghayev, member of the Muslim Solidarity Movement, was sentenced to 25 days of administrative arrest. He was beaten and his phone and personal information were forcefully taken by the police.
- On April 13th, Ibrahim Vazirov, a freelance journalist and blogger with Kanal24 Internet TV, was arrested for 25 days for disobeying a demand by the police to delete online reports about COVID-19.
- On April 13th, Reportyor.info journalist Mirsahib Rahiloglu was arrested for “violating quarantine rules” and detained for 30 days.
- On April 14th, Baba Suleymanov, an activist with the Popular Front Party (PFPA), was sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest for violating quarantine. He received permission to leave the house for two hours, but was detained on his way to the home of the party chairman.
- On April 16th, Popular Front Party activist Niyameddin Ahmedov was arrested for 30 days for violating the quarantine order and disobeying the police.
- On April 17th, Vugar Abilov was sentenced to 20 days of arrest on charges of disobeying the police.
- On April 17th, Islam Islamazade was arrested for 30 days for violating the quarantine regime and disobeying the police.
- On April 20th, Alizamin Salayev, a Popular Front Party member, who spent 30 days under administrative arrest in January and was charged with slandering a regional police official, was sentenced to two years and three months in prison.
- On April 20th, Teymur Kerimov, a reporter for the Azad Soz news website, was followed and attacked after interviewing the head of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party.
- On April 20th, member of Popular Party Front of Azerbaijan Nijat Abdullazade was sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest for disobeying the police.
- On April 22nd, two members of the Popular Front Party, Avaz Akhmedov and Arif Babayev, were detained and given, respectively, 20 and 30 days of administrative arrest. Akhmedov was charged with petty hooliganism, while Babayev was accused of spreading disinformation about COVID-19 online.
- Journalist Tazakhan Miraliyev and his assistant Faiq Amirli were arrested and journalist Teymur Karimov was beaten after an interview with him.
 This specific information was obtained from Nariman Abdulla himself. Nariman Abdulla was also an observer of Khalid Baghirov(like Zhala Bayramova) and has been followed since the election including on the internet.